Risk Literacy/Background

The term of risk literacy is derived from the traditional term of literacy as the ability to read and write. Partially the risk literacy is related to arithmetic literacy with mathematical comprehension of probability[1] For Risk Management the term's meaning has been tailored to the ability

  • to use language for communicating qualitative dimension of risk and risk mitigation resources,
  • to perceive and communicate numbers for describing the extend of risk and the amount of available resources,
  • to read images, diagrams and maps to derive decision support information about the (spatial) distribution of risks and the availablility and application of resources for risk mitigation,
  • to use computers (especially mobile device) to retrieve information about risk and risk mitigation resources, and
  • other basic means to associate certain observable objects and processes in our environment with a certain risk, understand the rationals about risk and the purpose of certain resources for risk mitigation, communicate your own knowledge about risk and resource to other members of the community, gain useful new knowledge due to constant change of our environment and adapt to the new requirements and constraints by changing your own risk management strategies. Due to climate change, population growth and limitation of resource in general, risk literacy is global challenge[2]. The concept of risk literacy is an importing pillar for risk management because sometimes it is difficult to remove the source of risk (e.g. radioactive contamination Fukushima, ...) and being risk literate is crucial for the affected population to use skills and technology to minimize exposure to the risk. A person who travels and resides in a foreign country but is unable to perceive or respond to the risk in this new environment would also be regarded by the locals as being risk illiterate even if he or she is fully aware of the risk in his/her country of origin.

The key to risk literacy is risk awareness, a progression of skills that begins with the ability to perceive risks and decode certain environmental, social or technical conditions as dangerous, and culminates in the deep understanding of dependencies origin of risk factors and it's impact on human wellbeing. The development risk literacy involves a range of complex interdependencies environmental, cultural, biological, chemical, social or technical factors.

Once these skills are acquired, the people can attain an appropriate risk literacy tailored to their environment, they are able to apply to critical analysis, inference and synthesis of risk factors and potential impact of resources to mitigate certain risk factors. We have to distinguish between risk literacy to mitigate the risk for yourself and the risk literacy to mitigate the risk for communities with a certain accuracy of planing and the coherence of concurrent objective. From a personal perspective it makes sense to get control over a maximum of available resources for yourself (More resource better response options for risk mitigation). But this individual objective is concurrent to the demand of other community members that might some of the resources with a higher priority. On a community or population scale it is necessary to use information and insights from the communities as the basis for informed decisions and efficient allocation of resources for the best impact on risk mitigation for the community as a whole.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO[3]) defines literacy as the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society".[4]

In this context risk literacy is part of the term Literacy in general[5]

But if we consider the opposite of Literacy as the inability to do read and write, illiteracy or analphabetism could be the case for people living in a community, but they can be highly risk literate to deal the threats and hazards in their environment (e.g. risk literacy to survive in an arctic very cold environment).


  1. "Literate." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literate>.
  2. UNESCO. "Education for All: A Global Monitoring Report" (PDF). UNESCO. UNESCO. p. 150.
  3. UNESCO, G. (2013). EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/14: Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All. Paris: UNESCO. According to the, 2014, 153.
  4. "The Plurality of Literacy and its implications for Policies and Programs". UNESCO Education Sector Position Paper: 13. 2004. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001362/136246e.pdf. 
  5. Margie Gillis, Ed.D., President, Literacy How, Inc., and Research Affiliate, Haskins Laboratories at Yale University; Sally Grimes, Ed.M., Executive Director, Literate Nation and Founder, Grimes Reading Institute; Cinthia Haan, Author and Chair, The Haan Foundation for Children and President, Power4Kids Reading Initiative; Peggy McCardle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Louisa Moats, Ed.D., President, Moats Associates Consulting, Inc.; Anthony Pedriana, Author and retired urban schoolteacher and principal; Susan Smartt, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, Vanderbilt University; Catherine Snow, Ph.D., Author, Researcher and Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University; Cheryl Ward, M.S.M., C.A.L.P., Co-founder of Wisconsin Reading Coalition and academic language practitioner; Maryanne Wolf, Ed.D., Author and Director, Center for Reading and Language Research, Tufts University.